Taiwan's Tsai wins Canadian government-backed award that Ottawa reportedly tried to block

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen has been awarded the John McCain Prize for Leadership in Public Service. Tsai is shown speaking during her inspection of a Republic of China Navy fleet in Keelung on March 8, 2021.

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen has been awarded a prestigious leadership prize, in a move that could infuriate Beijing, and following reports of attempted interference by Ottawa.

Tsai is the 2020 recipient of the John McCain Prize for Leadership in Public Service, the Halifax International Security Forum (HFX) announced late Monday. Though now independent, the Washington DC-based international security forum was founded by the Canadian government and receives considerable funding from Ottawa.

This year's award is the second in a row that will likely displease Beijing, after the 2019 prize went to the people of Hong Kong "for their brave fight for their rights in the face of oppression from the government of China." Beijing regards self-ruled, democratic Taiwan as part of its territory, and Tsai is a figure of loathing in Chinese state media.

China has stepped up military pressure against Taiwan in recent months, with frequent air and naval drills around the island.

Ottawa was previously forced to deny reports it had tried to block the award being given to Tsai, after Politico, a media partner of HFX, reported in April that ministers had threatened to pull funding if the Taiwanese leader was chosen.

Speaking to lawmakers later that month, Canadian Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan said the reports were "absolutely false." Sajjan said HFX was entirely independent, and added he had "authorized funding for (the forum) twice last year."

Following the controversy, Canadian lawmakers voted unanimously for a non-binding motion urging the government to continue funding the award, saying that Tsai "is a well-respected international leader, the first female president of Taiwan, and a strong global advocate for democracy ... she would certainly be an ideal fit for this award."

Responding to the vote, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Beijing "deplores and rejects the wrong motion related to Taiwan passed by the Canadian House of Commons."

"Canada should recognize that the Taiwan question is highly sensitive, prudently and properly handle Taiwan-related issues and avoid further undermining bilateral relations," Zhao said.

It was the second motion in months that put the Canadian government in an awkward position with China, after parliament voted in February to declare the situation in Xinjiang -- where Beijing has been accused of detaining millions of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities -- a "genocide."

Relations between Ottawa and Beijing have plummeted in recent years, following the 2018 arrest in Vancouver of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, who is currently fighting extradition to the United States, where she is wanted for allegedly breaching sanctions against Iran.

In the wake of Meng's arrest, two Canadians -- Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor -- were detained in China, and later charged with spying. The two men finally went on trial in March, in separate closed-door hearings that were widely denounced by Western governments.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government has come under considerable criticism for its failure to help the two men, with many lawmakers pushing for Ottawa to take a more aggressive posture towards China.

In March, Beijing sanctioned a number of Canadians, including Conservative MP and shadow Foreign Affairs Minister Michael Chong, for spreading what it said was "rumors and disinformation" about Xinjiang. Chong described his designation as a "badge of honour" and said Canadians had a "duty" to call out Beijing over crackdowns in Hong Kong and the "genocide" in Xinjiang.

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